Trading barn clothes for a suit and tie and a job on the midwestern fair circuit.
by Dean A. Hoffman
Introduction: Earlier this summer in Harness Racing Update, I wrote about my summers (1966-69)as a swipe at Walnut Hall Farm in Kentucky and on the track with a racing stable:
My next two summers I spent as a summer representative to the county fairs for the U.S. Trotting Assn. This meant that I had to put on a dress shirt and tie in June and hit the road to cover fairs in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. I was one of three traveling reps that the USTA then employed to provide publicity and other assistance to fairs with harness racing.
My summer job in 1970 was set to begin in mid-June after I got out of classes at Ohio University in Athens. But my academic years ended abruptly in May. Those who are long enough in the tooth or who have long memories will remember that four students were shot and killed at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4 that year.
On that same day at Ohio University, I was welcoming the 80-year-old Edward Bernays, the man considered the father of public relations (also nephew of Sigmund Freud) to the university campus in my role as an officer in the Public Relations Student Society.
(I was introduced to Bernays and he said, “Oh, you look so young to be a Dean.” True enough: I was 20 at that time and I was mightily tempted to say, “And I’ve been a Dean since birth.” Not an academic Dean, of course but just a regular Dean).
This was the era of the Vietnam War, and college campus were ablaze with anti-war protests. Protests of the Kent State killing came to our campus and Ohio National Guardsmen were brought in to maintain order. One evening I saw a former roomie and told him I was going uptown to see what was happening.
“Oh, no, man,” he told me. “It’s crazy there. Students throwing bricks through store windows… trying to turn over cars and set them on fire. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s too dangerous.”
But fools rush in where wise men fear to tread and I continued treading toward the chaos. I spotted National Guardsmen on the rooftops with rifles. They were also on the streets protecting businesses. Students were chanting. Fires were blazing.
Suddenly shots rang out. I wasn’t sure where they came from. That was a moot point. I simply turned and ran. I can say without fear of contradiction that Usain Bolt never covered ground faster than I did. No, I probably can’t outrun a bullet, but I was determined to give it the old college try.
My room was at the foot of a steep hill and I headed for safety. The National Guardsmen later began tossing tear-gas cannisters down the hill, knowing that they were roll to the bottom where the troublemakers (aka students) lived. The university president came on the college radio station about 3 a.m. and said that school was closed and that students had 24 hours to get off campus.
We learned later that the National Guardsmen were, in fact, firing blanks not bullets. But they sure were not firing blanks when they killed those four students at Kent State. I wasn’t planning to find out.
So I had a month before I could start my USTA work and I found a job with a tree-trimming team before I drove from my home in Cincinnati to get my USTA marching orders in Columbus.
The USTA then strongly believed that fair racing was the foundation of the business and that a business was built from the foundation up. The USTA provided a lot of support for county fairs, understanding that many trainers, drivers, owners and horses got introduced to harness racing at the fair level.
Larry Evans was our boss and he wrote a “Fair Affairs” column in Hoof Beats each month and spoke to countless horsemen’s banquets in the off-season. Larry lived and loved county fair racing.
My territory was Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Other summer reps covered other fairs.
Keep in mind this was long before the era of GPS, cell phones, and Internet. No, I didn’t travel to the fairs on horseback or in a Conestoga wagon, but travel in that era was much different than today.
Harness racing was different, too. There were 429 tracks (fairs and pari-mutuel raceways) offering harness racing then. Michigan, for example, had harness racing at 29 fairs in 1970. This year it has racing at 11.
Ostensibly the job of the fair reps was to provide publicity or any other assistance needed by a fair. Alas, the racing people at fairs had no idea I was to arrive and I know often they regarded me as a USTA spy to make sure officials were abiding by the rules. I tried to arrange media coverage of the fair racing in advance and also to cover the races themselves if I arrived during the fair.
I went first to Converse in northeast Indiana and there I made friends with Lowell “Tubby” Trimble and his sons and a young teacher named Richard “Pete” Beck who later served in the Indiana legislature and on the racing commission.
I wore a dress shirt and tie and that made me automatically suspicious in the barn area of any county fair. But I recall Tubby bringing a pacer back to the barn one morning and I unchecked the colt and helped Tubby unhook the harness from the cart. I think that gave me instant credibility with Tubby.
Tubby had a top sophomore pacer that season named Golden Boy Dean — a name I rather fancied in that era when I still had blonde hair.
I already knew that the king of Indiana was Jerry Landess, a truck driver by vocation and a horseman par excellence as his avocation. Everyone respected Jerry’s work ethic and horsemanship. A half-dozen years after I witnessed his wizardry on the track, Jerry would begin breaking a yearling pacer named Abercrombie at his fairgrounds stable in Indiana.
From Indiana I went north to Michigan and it’s difficult to comprehend how the roles of those two states have reversed since my time at the fairs. In 1970, Indiana was still 25 years away from pari-mutuels, so a handful of fairs was all the Hoosier State had to offer. By contrast, Michigan was a pari-mutuel powerhouse with a strong county fair program and numerous breeding farms.
I found accommodations in whatever cheap motels were available and usually paid $8-10/night. One night when racing was slated in Big Rapids, I chanced into a motel that had color TV in the rooms! Hoo boy—a high-class joint. That night the All-Star Baseball game was slated and rain was forecast.
The Big Rapids fair had carded a non-winners of $200 lifetime pace and some of the orangutans among the entries were six or seven years old. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that a horse that old which hasn’t earned $200 lifetime ain’t much stock. I assumed that some farmers just pulled horses out of the field and took them to the fair for a little fun.
The Big Rapids track records then were 2:07.2 for pacers and 2:08-3/4 for trotters. That speaks volumes.
It rained all afternoon and I assumed that the fair might cancel racing, and I could watch the All-Star game in my dry motel room. But the fair had 20 heats slated that night and 22 the next night, so they found a way to race over a track that was a sea of mud.
I stood behind the judges stand on the inside of the track and watched horses splash through their warm-up miles. They went several sulky widths from the rail since the inside of the track was a giant marshland.
I noticed a pacer come down the stretch acting strangely as he drifted into the mud and took aim at the hub rail. BAM! He hit the hub rail and went down, catapulting the driver into a free mud bath. I began running to help as soon I saw realized what was happening.
“JUMP ON HIS HEAD! JUMP ON HIS HEAD!” came a chorus of voices from the judges stand.
I knew what to do when I horse went down. This horse was likely one of those in the NW $200 Life Pace. And I was wearing a sport coat, dress shirt, tie, nice slacks, and good shoes. I mentally calculated that my J.C. Penney attire was worth more than the horse and I figured, “He got down there by himself. Let him get up by himself.”
Damned if he didn’t! The driver was okay and the horse somehow scrambled to its feet.
I crisscrossed Michigan, doing my best to generate some media coverage for the racing and help fair officials in whatever way I could. Then it was south to Ohio where I hit fairs in Urbana, Lisbon, Marietta, Upper Sandusky, Greenville, Medina, Sidney, Zanesville, and many more.
That summer, a sophomore colt pacer named Sammy Key had a long winning streak going and the black colt rolled along like Ol’ Man River until the fair at Upper Sandusky where he was upset. I managed to get some good newspaper coverage for that, as I recall.
All too soon it was time to head back to college for my senior year, but after a few weeks of classes I managed to fit in one more county fair as I played hooky and drove to the Delaware County Fair and watched Most Happy Fella defeat Columbia George in a slam-bang Little Brown Jug.